Aging Well vs. Aging Messily

Here's a guest blog we wrote for Widow Chick.

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Leavenworth, WA — One of the most important lessons I learned was the result of taking a road bike down a logging road.  When I was 16, my brother and I rode up the backside of Lake Wenatchee in Washington State. We were on a camping trip with all the aunts, all the uncles, all the cousins, all the fun.  Between my brother and I, we had a skinny-tired road bike and a mountain bike.

I followed my brother up the logging road for several miles, taking the first turn on the mountain bike.  At the top of a lookout, we decided to trade for the downhill ride. Within minutes, he literally left me in the dust.  Trying to catch him at the bottom of the hill, that little road bike hit washboard and I crashed head-first into the gravel road.  I knocked the wind out of myself and I remember lifting my head to hear blood dripping from my chin in the settling dust. The bike was too mangled to ride so we flagged down the next stranger -- a logger with chainsaws and fast-food napkins in the back of his truck.  My brother, meanwhile, rode the trails back to the campground and announced to my mom that I’d crashed. He explained that I was bleeding and a stranger was bringing me back with the bike. According to my family, my mom exclaimed, “You left my baby with a logger?!”

Back at camp, I was bloody, stunned and covered in dirt.  But this was my aunt’s time to shine. Not only is she a nurse but, at the time, she was one of the charge nurses at a Level 1 trauma ER in Tacoma.  She grabbed a yellow bar of Dial soap, washcloths, gauze and q-tips, and marched me over to the campground restroom. Stripped pretty-much naked, I held up my chin, my arms, my hands and my knee as she scrubbed every spot of road-rash.  When she got to my right arm, she stuck a sudsy q-tip into a deep puncture wound by my elbow and commented “we’ll have to go to the ER to get that irrigated”. Then she led me to the shower stalls, helped me strip off the rest of my clothes and rinsed me off.

In the moment, I was too stunned to be modest or think dramatically about my dignity running down the drain.  What I remember is that she toweled me off and commented to my mom back at the campsite that she was impressed with me letting her help and being completely naked.  Mistakenly, I thought this meant she’d be on my side when we finally made it to the Leavenworth Hospital and the nurses squirted saline solution deep into the wound. When I whined, however, she rolled her eyes and said, “Oh stop….you were fine earlier.”  Fine.

Years later, my thoughts on being naked changed.  I swam naked in the river at hippy festivals with friends, went skinny-dipping at sunset in Lake Michigan (floated downstream and had to run back to our clothes!), and even ran into an ex’s mother in the locker-room after water aerobics -- both of us naked as jaybirds.  I could choose when I wanted to don my birthday suit, and I applauded mothers nursing their babies in public. Then I went through two shoulder surgeries a few years ago and the experience with my aunt came rushing back. I was dopey from pain meds and, after about three days of recovering, desperate to change my clothes and feel clean.  I knew I couldn’t dress or shower on my own so it was either call my family (at least 45-minutes away) or -- and this was new for me -- call my friends.

Two friends in particular were available, loved me and understood how hard it was to ask for help.  I gave them multiple apologies and chances to decline, knowing I would need physical assistance to get from clothed to naked to clean to dried off to clothed again.  For the second time in my life, I found myself letting someone physically help me. I couldn’t even spoon yogurt out of a container on my own (it stuck to the spoon), let alone get my own underwear back on.  Several baths and showers later, I felt safe bathing on my own. A relief, definitely, and I come back to these experiences when I talk with people about getting older and what that might mean for some of us who are single.  

One of the most vulnerable things a person can tell me is that they are afraid to age alone.  Widows, widowers, single people, those who don’t have kids...the concern is multi-faceted. Maybe it’s the loneliness that’s scary.  Maybe it’s the unknown if you don’t have kids. Maybe it’s the grief of a having a broken relationship with your kids or the strain of not knowing if they’ll help.  Our highly-prized independent spirit in the West does nothing to alleviate these thoughts.

It’s a likely fact that our bodies are going to break down, our number of awkward experiences will go up (like running into an ex’s mom naked in the locker-room) and we’re going to have to let other people help in very intimate ways.  Some people do this every single day -- get help, I mean -- which is where The Fundamentals of Caring, a film about a teen and his caregiver, lays a brick in the foundation of messy-beautiful films.  

Along this road, we either fight or hide or reconcile ourselves.  Often we don’t have a choice on the reconciled front. We realize that this is the way it is to receive care, grieve-the-shit-out-of-it, and -- in the best case scenario -- maybe recognize that we’ve practiced this before...by letting someone who is not a partner or parent or child help us physically, see us naked and still help out.

For all the hype we hear about “aging well”, I believe there’s a part of us that knows we’re going to “age messily”.  I mean, how are we going to live up to this whole “aging well” hoopla when the time comes that I can’t even get my own underwear up?  Perhaps “aging messily” works because we don’t actually know what to expect and it implies that you don’t have to hit a certain level of whatever to know you’re doing it right.  

At some point, we’ll all need help with the messiness when we realize we can’t do it all on our own.  But how much easier would it be if we valued the experience of receiving care at the stages when we are independent, before it’s an everyday thing?  Because, in my mind, we can only hold our perfectly independent selves together for so long before we find ourselves standing naked in the campground bathroom, relying on an aunt who scrubs our wounds out with Dial soap and matter-of-factly tells us to “quit whining”.

Tips for How to Hire Care:

1. Identify at least a friend or two whom you’d be comfortable asking for help and who wouldn’t think twice about seeing you naked.  Just knowing that you know someone is a huge start!

2. If you are someone who finds peace of mind in knowing all of your t’s are crossed and i’s are dotted: check out Sheila Warnock’s book Share the Care: How to Organize a Group for Caregiving.  This is one of the best -- and most detailed -- guides for setting up a supportive circle when someone you know is affected by a serious injury or illness.

3. If you like having someone walk you through the options: call a social worker and set up a consultation to go through what you need in terms of care.  Your doctor’s office may have a social worker or nurse case manager who can help.  Private case managers like Western Care Partners can also explain your options, including what might be available for funding.

4. If you like to have information before you need it: research options on hiring in-home help in your area.  The Denver Coordinated Workgroup has put together a guide called “How to Hire In-Home Help” which discusses identifying what you need, things to consider and various ideas on paying for care.

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Western Care Partners guides and supports families and individuals through the maze of services and emotions that come with aging.  We provide resources, facilitation of tough conversations and individualized navigation so you can make your best decisions when caring for yourself or an aging loved one.  Contact us for more information: 720-675-9902 or via our website.